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- TRENT'S TRUST & OTHER STORIES - 30/45 -
The guests looked up--gratified but astonished. "Are ye sure, ma'am, you don't mind it?" said Joe politely.
"Not at all," responded Mrs. Pottinger briefly. "In fact, as my physician advises the inhalation of tobacco smoke for my asthmatic difficulties, I will join you." After a moment's fumbling in a beaded bag that hung from her waist, she produced a small black clay pipe, filled it from the same receptacle, and lit it.
A thrill of surprise went round the company, and it was noticed that Prosper seemed equally confounded. Nevertheless, this awkwardness was quickly overcome by the privilege and example given them, and with, a glass of whiskey and water before them, the men were speedily at their ease. Nor did Mrs. Pottinger disdain to mingle in their desultory talk. Sitting there with her black pipe in her mouth, but still precise and superior, she told a thrilling whaling adventure of Prosper's father (drawn evidently from the experience of the lamented Pottinger), which not only deeply interested her hearers, but momentarily exalted Prosper in their minds as the son of that hero. "Now you speak o' that, ma'am," said the ingenuous Wynbrook, "there's a good deal o' Prossy in that yarn o' his father's; same kind o' keerless grit! You remember, boys, that day the dam broke and he stood thar, the water up to his neck, heavin' logs in the break till he stopped it." Briefly, the evening, in spite of its initial culinary failure and its surprises, was a decided social success, and even the bewildered and doubting Prosper went to bed relieved. It was followed by many and more informal gatherings at the house, and Mrs Pottinger so far unbent--if that term could be used of one who never altered her primness of manner--as to join in a game of poker--and even permitted herself to win.
But by the end of six weeks another change in their feelings towards Prosper seemed to creep insidiously over the camp. He had been received into his former fellowship, and even the presence of his mother had become familiar, but he began to be an object of secret commiseration. They still frequented the house, but among themselves afterwards they talked in whispers. There was no doubt to them that Prosper's old mother drank not only what her son had provided, but what she surreptitiously obtained from the saloon. There was the testimony of the barkeeper, himself concerned equally with the camp in the integrity of the Riggs household. And there was an even darker suspicion. But this must be given in Joe Wynbrook's own words:--
"I didn't mind the old woman winnin' and winnin' reg'lar--for poker's an unsartin game;--it ain't the money that we're losin'-- for it's all in the camp. But when she's developing a habit o' holdin' FOUR aces when somebody else hez TWO, who don't like to let on because it's Prosper's old mother--it's gettin' rough! And dangerous too, gentlemen, if there happened to be an outsider in, or one of the boys should kick. Why, I saw Bilson grind his teeth-- he holdin' a sequence flush--ace high--when the dear old critter laid down her reg'lar four aces and raked in the pile. We had to nearly kick his legs off under the table afore he'd understand--not havin' an old mother himself."
"Some un will hev to tackle her without Prossy knowin' it. For it would jest break his heart, arter all he's gone through to get her here!" said Brewster significantly.
"Onless he DID know it and it was that what made him so sorrowful when they first came. B'gosh! I never thought o' that," said Wynbrook, with one of his characteristic sudden illuminations.
"Well, gentlemen, whether he did or not," said the barkeeper stoutly, "he must never know that WE know it. No, not if the old gal cleans out my bar and takes the last scad in the camp."
And to this noble sentiment they responded as one man.
How far they would have been able to carry out that heroic resolve was never known, for an event occurred which eclipsed its importance. One morning at breakfast Mrs. Pottinger fixed a clouded eye upon Prosper.
"Prosper," she said, with fell deliberation "you ought to know you have a sister."
"Yes, ma'am," returned Prosper, with that meekness with which he usually received these family disclosures.
"A sister," continued the lady, "whom you haven't seen since you were a child; a sister who for family reasons has been living with other relatives; a girl of nineteen."
"Yea, ma'am," said Prosper humbly. "But ef you wouldn't mind writin' all that down on a bit o' paper--ye know my short memory! I would get it by heart to-day in the gulch. I'd have it all pat enough by night, ef," he added, with a short sigh, "ye was kalkilatin' to make any illusions to it when the boys are here."
"Your sister Augusta," continued Mrs. Pottinger, calmly ignoring these details, "will be here to-morrow to make me a visit."
But here the worm Prosper not only turned, but stood up, nearly upsetting the table. "It can't be did, ma'am it MUSTN'T be did!" he said wildly. "It's enough for me to have played this camp with YOU--but now to run in"--
"Can't be did!" repeated Mrs. Pottinger, rising in her turn and fixing upon the unfortunate Prosper a pair of murky piratical eyes that had once quelled the sea-roving Pottinger. "Do you, my adopted son, dare to tell me that I can't have my own flesh and blood beneath my roof?"
"Yes! I'd rather tell the whole story--I'd rather tell the boys I fooled them--than go on again!" burst out the excited Prosper.
But Mrs. Pottinger only set her lips implacably together. "Very well, tell them then," she said rigidly; "tell them how you lured me from my humble dependence in San Francisco with the prospect of a home with you; tell them how you compelled me to deceive their trusting hearts with your wicked falsehoods; tell them how you--a foundling--borrowed me for your mother, my poor dead husband for your father, and made me invent falsehood upon falsehood to tell them while you sat still and listened!"
"Tell them," she went on deliberately, "that when I wanted to bring my helpless child to her only home--THEN, only then--you determined to break your word to me, either because you meanly begrudged her that share of your house, or to keep your misdeeds from her knowledge! Tell them that, Prossy, dear, and see what they'll say!"
Prosper sank back in his chair aghast. In his sudden instinct of revolt he had forgotten the camp! He knew, alas, too well what they would say! He knew that, added to their indignation at having been duped, their chivalry and absurd sentiment would rise in arms against the abandonment of two helpless women!
"P'r'aps ye're right, ma'am," he stammered. "I was only thinkin'," he added feebly, "how SHE'D take it."
"She'll take it as I wish her to take it," said Mrs. Pottinger firmly.
"Supposin', ez the camp don't know her, and I ain't bin talkin' o' havin' any SISTER, you ran her in here as my COUSIN? See? You bein' her aunt?"
Mrs. Pottinger regarded him with compressed lips for some time. Then she said, slowly and half meditatively: "Yes, it might be done! She will probably be willing to sacrifice her nearer relationship to save herself from passing as your sister. It would be less galling to her pride, and she wouldn't have to treat you so familiarly."
"Yes, ma'am," said Prosper, too relieved to notice the uncomplimentary nature of the suggestion. "And ye see I could call her 'Miss Pottinger,' which would come easier to me."
In its high resolve to bear with the weaknesses of Prosper's mother, the camp received the news of the advent of Prosper's cousin solely with reference to its possible effect upon the aunt's habits, and very little other curiosity. Prosper's own reticence, they felt, was probably due to the tender age at which he had separated from his relations. But when it was known that Prosper's mother had driven to the house with a very pretty girl of eighteen, there was a flutter of excitement in that impressionable community. Prosper, with his usual shyness, had evaded an early meeting with her, and was even loitering irresolutely on his way home from work, when, as he approached the house, to his discomfiture the door suddenly opened, the young lady appeared and advanced directly towards him.
She was slim, graceful, and prettily dressed, and at any other moment Prosper might have been impressed by her good looks. But her brows were knit, her dark eyes--in which there was an unmistakable reminiscence of Mrs. Pottinger--were glittering, and although she was apparently anticipating their meeting, it was evidently with no cousinly interest. When within a few feet of him she stopped. Prosper with a feeble smile offered his hand. She sprang back.
"Don't touch me! Don't come a step nearer or I'll scream!"
Prosper, still with smiling inanity, stammered that he was only "goin' to shake hands," and moved sideways towards the house.
"Stop!" she said, with a stamp of her slim foot. "Stay where you are! We must have our talk out HERE. I'm not going to waste words with you in there, before HER."
"What did you do this for?" she said angrily. "How dared you? How could you? Are you a man, or the fool she takes you for?"
"Wot did I do WOT for?" said Prosper sullenly.
"This! Making my mother pretend you were her son! Bringing her here among these men to live a lie!"
"She was willin'," said Prosper gloomily. "I told her what she had to do, and she seemed to like it."
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